Friday, July 24, 2020

Under the Hood: How to Build a "Functional" Area for a Truck Simulator

Michal "Seki" Sekela has been working at SCS Software for a few years in the 3D Graphics Department. Together with our American Truck Simulator art team, he has worked on the Oregon and Washington map expansions and continues to work on upcoming content releasing this year. He shares the following with us.

We have covered the process of map creation in one of our previous blog posts, which is a highly complex task which our map team has been doing a fantastic job with. The job of a 3D graphics designer will probably be easier for you to understand, and we expect that most of you will have some idea about what this job entails. Let us show you a peek under-the-hood of the design and creation process of depots in American Truck Simulator; depots that may become a factory, an industrial area, a production complex, or a storage area.

A depot is also a place where we thoroughly test your driving and maneuvering skills while giving you a glimpse of the various industrial activities that you may typically find happening in such a location. In Seki's opinion, depots are the second most important part of the game, right after trucks. One might imagine that modeling a depot means having a 3D designer locking himself up in a dark room for weeks, while others peer through his/her door eagerly awaiting the final result. While some of this is true when finalizing the models, the process most-certainly involves more collaboration between departments.

The design draft of a selected location and its functionality is a multi-department process. This may involve our game-researchers, map designers, programmers, testers, and graphic artists. A researcher begins the process by scouring for information about the industry in its given location. At the same time, a map designer prepares a prototype of the surrounding road network and terrain; we need to know exactly what fits in the given area because we're limited by the game's 1:20 scale.

The United States is a massive country, so a lack of space is something that most companies need not worry about, which is evident with some factories stretching up to a few kilometers long. A 3D designer, therefore, has to come up with a solution to capture the essence of the location, while fitting within the limits presented by our scale (as we cannot utilise too much space for a single factory). The results must be acceptable when viewed from every angle; when players drive to such places, they should be able to recognize the location (with a little bit of "artistic license").

Some of the depots found in ATS are real-life landmarks. With these, we strive to preserve them in their truest form, given the constraints. We also have a lot of generic depots that are expected to be re-used; with these, we are trying to distill the typical patterns shared across a variety of real-world locations. Unfortunately, the architects of these buildings did not expect to have their designs featured in a video game. Consequently, our team has to come up with a three-pronged approach. Firstly, the depot has to make visual and logical sense, secondly, it has to fit in the map, and lastly, it must be completely functional for the player.

The biggest depot you will find in ATS covers 591,692 square feet. In this case, it's a landmark depot of course (take a guess what this might be). In most cases, we usually have smaller places in order to fit them into cities such as storage areas, supermarkets, and small service depots.

Right now we're trying to create depots that are as unique as possible. Since Oregon, these have consisted of a core area on which the player drives his/her truck, while additional parts are created and placed manually from suitable assets by the Map Designer responsible for this part of the map. Thanks to this we are able to create a more immersive experience for the player and give them a feeling of navigating within a large complex. Dividing the depot into parts also helps us to better customize and optimize it.

When we're certain what depots are coming, our researchers help us with the logic and functionality of said location. For example, a paper mill has a specific building layout, with each building serving a unique function. This research allows us to accurately represent this area in a realistic manner so that it lines-up with our real-life references. Another example is the food industry, where it is industry-standard to have the loading and unloading docks separated. This also means not placing trash cans too close to a place where new goods are accepted.

The 3D designer also has to take into account the length of the truck and trailer combination. At this time, we have trailer combinations up to 118 feet in length, when paired with the longest truck configurations. With the arrival of triple trailer combinations and oversized transports, we've had to adjust all of ATS' depots, so that a player can get in, hook up the trailer, and drive out.

After gathering all the necessary data, the 3D designer will create a placeholder model, where all the different depot parts and various parking locations (for the 3 different difficulty levels) are marked by simple shapes. What follows then is a back-and-forth between the 3D designer and our testers, who will test the depot thoroughly for gameplay and visual issues. Our testers' feedback allows us to adjust the model to fix any identified issues. This is not a quick or easy task, considering all the possible combinations. To hasten the process, the 3D designer is generally familiar with what is expected, and to apply these considerations to the initial prototype in advance. This is to prevent the testing/feedback process from taking too long before the depot is ready for final production. This and a great many other details depend on how experienced a 3D designer is, which is why only senior designers are working on depots here in SCS.

After all this, a Map Designer connects the placeholder model to the road network and the rest of the map. With that, the economy team starts working on the depot, and the Map Designer on the depot's surroundings. This is also the phase when the 3D designer can lock himself up in some dark basement and start modeling. He still needs to communicate with the rest of the team, so at the very least, he's got to have an internet connection there.

The whole process of depot-creation can take weeks or even months in really difficult cases. The depot's presence and quality grow incrementally in the map as the 3D designer updates it, while a map designer checks to make sure that everything is integrating properly. The depot's progress is also often consulted with our Art Lead. Modeling is pretty smooth-sailing when the necessary research and testing of the placeholder's layout is done.

And with this, we conclude this inside look into creating one of the major parts of a Euro/American Truck Simulator project. We hope you appreciate this small insight into the 3D graphics team, which doesn't only create vertices in the shape of a house but also has to devise and execute the entire depot-creation process. In the future, we are planning to build even more complex and impressive depots with the aces up our sleeves. Enjoy!

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